Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Irene Nermirovsky

One of the most important products of the Revolution of 1917 was the Russian Diaspora. Bunin, Nabokov, and Berdyaev are just a few of the jewels in the White Russian crown. But many others, including Henri Troyat, are almost as important, although they learned to see themselves as French as much as they saw themselves as Russian. Irene Nemirovsky probably felt the same. Without knowing anything about her other than what I can glean from Wikipedia, I'm reading her unfinished novel, Fire in the Blood. According to the reviews, I should have started with her masterwork, Suite Francais, two brillaint novellas that emerged out of World War II. Fire in the Blood is a simple, darkly beautiful depiction of life and love in a rural, bourgeois France and shows few self-evidently Russian themes, although the main character shows some traits of the Russian exile. For instance, he's travelled the world, lost his property, and eventually comes to realize that the rootedness of rural life, for all of its pettiness and jealousy, is somehow truer than the sophistication of the globetrotter. Moreover, like most Russian exiles, he's obsessed with the love of his youth, and Les Temps Perdu in general.

Nemirovsky was ethnically Jewish, although she converted to Catholicism, and died in Auschwitz on August 17, 1942. Suite Francais emerged only in the late 1990s since her daughter previously felt that it would be too painful to peruse her mother's papers.

Nuremberg Trial

Monday, March 29, 2010

My Most Influential

I feel like we should contribute to this slightly irritating thing going around the blogosphere where you list and describe the 10 books that have had the biggest influence on you (not necessarily best or favorite books). So here are my biggest Russian influences:

1.Hendrik Smith, The Russians. I attended a small rural high school and one of our few electives was a freshman “Russian History” course. This was the textbook. I haven't looked at it since I was 14, but my impression was that it was designed to scare students and mold capitalists. It depicted Russian life as unbearably narrow, drab, and oppressive. When I later (briefly) grew more responsive to the principles of socialism I assumed that Smith, a New York Times reporter, was just a shil for the anticommunist establishment. Now I imagine he got things about right, and he may have been more sympathetic to the Russians than I remember.
2.Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment. I was a lazy student and one quarter I forgot to do my junior year English book review. Half mockingly a friend and I suggested to the teacher that perhaps reading Crime and Punishment and War and Peace for next term would make up for our negligence. We didn't know anything about these books or their authors, but we read them. I'm not sure what I responded to. I felt pity for Sonia; I was upset by the beating of the horse; my flesh crawled at the thought of Raskolnikov's room. I don't think the murder, or the philosophical reflections, or the arrest and imprisonment of Raskolnikov made much of an impression. I didn't even know who Napoleon was. But this was the first non-juvenile important book I read of my own free will and I still remember how it felt to think that I had put away childish things, as they say.
3. Saltykov-Schedrin, The Golovlyov Family. I read this as a sophomore in college for a Russian Literature course. The class was taught by a grad student and didn't leave many lasting memories. But this book struck me for some of the same reasons Crime and Punishment did. The singular ability of the Russians to wallow in both crapulence and filth, to seek and celebrate the lowest, most degrading forms of existence, and furthermore to find redemption in that degradation reaches its apex in The Golovlyov Family. In a recent episode of 30 Rock, Jack tells Liz that when you realize you can “go lower” you find ways to escape your problems. I think this is a profound truth. We can always go lower.
4.Perry Anderson, In the Tracks of Historical Materialism. This is not a Russian book in any sense, but it did draw me into the world of Western marxist thought and by extension made Russia seem like a special place. I remember first learning of the existence of the Swedish marxist Goran Thernstrom's book What Does the Ruling Class Do When It Rules? and experiencing an unadulterated delight at the thought that the malign workings of ruling elites could be so brazenly exposed, not necessarily for all the world, but at least for that small coterie of my fellow marxist initiates to observe. A few years later I read the book, which didn't quite live up to its title. Oh, and this would have been around 1993: kind of a ridiculous time to become a marxist.
5.Isaac Deutscher's Trotsky. For someone like the me of my early 20's Trotsky was irresistible. A literary critic who could run an army? I probably wanted more desperately to imitate him than anyone else, and yet it didn't take. Today I couldn't be less Trotsky-ish (which is probably all the better).
6.Dostoyevsky, The Gambler. This book played a big role in my dissertation and is the only real act of literary criticism I've performed, however unsuccessful.

I don't want to take up too much space, so I'll just list the others, maybe returning to them later:
7.Stephen Kotkin, The Magnetic Mountain.
8.David Remnick, Lenin's Tomb
9.Henri Troyat, Tolstoy
10.Solzhenitsyn, Cancer Ward

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Russia for Christian Homeschoolers

Soviet School Visit

Today a relative let me look at a K-8 religious curriculum on Russia for Christian homeschoolers entitled Russia: The Land of Endurance. This text, written by Jessica Hulcy, Colene Lewis, and Shari Autrey, appears in the Konos Culture Series. Interesting, the book both fosters creative thinking, and hinders it, by linking all subjects to the Bible as interpreted by the authors. It's not enough for the students to learn facts and dates about Russia; instead, they must use critical thinking skills to see how Russian history makes sense in the light of Biblical truths.

Not surprisingly, the flip side of this approach to education is that "Biblical truth" is not subjected to that same kind of critical appraisal, nor is the authors' interpretation of that truth scrutinized. Thus, the authors' own bias in rather more blatant than secular approaches to Russian history tend to be. There's a trade off, to be sure, but certainly it's interesting to look at Russian history--or any history--with the benefit of a clear and omnipresent moral perspective. Thus, the authors roundly critique the very essence of socialist logic, as if the Bible were an economic treatise opposed to anything other than the theories of 19th century free-trade liberal economics.

They also condemn Russian vices, such as alcoholism, by appealing directly to Biblical passages on the subject, as if socialists didn't also campaign against this vice. Although the authors have done their research, there are a few egregious errors of fact, such as when they overestimate the number of Stalin's executions by approximately a factor of thirty (Probably, they merely confused direct executions under Stalin with all non-natural deaths under Stalin, including those caused by famine and indeed the Nazi invasion).

No matter, this is a well-done book. It's most fascinating insofar as it gives parents and students a hundred different ways to make Russian history come to life. Students make borscht and solchi, create Mongolian and Orthodox Priest customs, fashion maps that highlight Russian trading patterns, explain the workings of a samovar, scientifically observe beets and turnips, hold a Novgorod "veche" with siblings to determine what to do that evening, create a paper cutout model of the Kremlin, take away half of a sandwiche to illustrate the essence of serfdom, dance a Cossack jig or pereplya, watch the Fiddler on the Roof, hold a family council to immitate how the mir tried to reach unanimity in its decisions, take apart a household object to portray Peter the Great's insatiable curiosity, glue chicken bones on a map of St. Petersburg to explain that this was a city built on the bones of peasants, count to ten in Russian, sit under a dining room table for one full day to emulate and imagine Catherine the Great's first sleigh journey from Germany to Russia, clean rooms superficially to demonstrate how Potemkin villages were constructed, calculate the percentage of Napoleon's troops who escaped Russia (Answer: 1.4 percent), dance the troika with twelve other children, paint Russian nesting dolls, let dad be a czar for a day and disallow any form of questioning throughout the day, prepare a news broadcast on the Decembrist revolt, eat just one M & M to simulate dissatisfaction with Alexander II's decision to grant the serfs freedom but not the ownership of the land, approximate Marxist re-distribution processes by taking everybody's lunch and giving back only very small portions (while putting kids who complain in the bathroom or even outside to show what Siberia was like), et cetera and so on.

Who says Russian history isn't fun?

Books of Russia fair opens in Moscow

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Siberian Utopia

Miss Russia 2010 beauty contest

When I tell people I have started a blog on modern Russian history, they inevitably ask: “Are you Russian? “ When I say no, they ask: “Well, have you been to Russia?” The answer to both questions is no. I have no natural or biological connection to Russia or any of the countries that made up the Soviet Union. I don’t even speak a word of the language. It’s an arbitrary fixation which, to my mind, is the best kind of obsession. In fact, I am not always sure I actually desire to go to Russia. How could the actual location live up to the “Coast of Utopia,” to borrow a phrase from Tom Stoppard? And of course I’d be better off not going if the cost of a ticket alone is $2000 or so. When it comes to travel, Mexico fits my budget.

Men s volleyball super league match Stars of Russia 2-3 World Stars

This is how I used to think before Russia came to me. That’s right, this author filled out a simple three-page form a couple of months ago (and did so last year as well) and I’ve just now been informed that I will likely be heading to Russia in May 2011. I’m stunned. More shockingly, a Russian visitor may be staying with my family as early as October 2010. This is not a drill: if all goes well, I may be schlepping a Russian faculty member or administrator around Chicago in the fairly near future.

Yekaterinburg theatre performs King Lear in Moscow

And how strange to find myself on the way to Russia only a few months after electing to create a blog to track my deepening interest in Russian history? But odder than the fact that I may be headed for Russia (the program still has to find a match in this specific country before I can be more definite), is that I’m not headed to Moscow or St. Petersburg but rather to the heart of Russia and indeed the entire Eurasian landmass apparently, Yekaterinburg.

In the next several days I hope to post something about Yekaterinburg. When I applied, I knew nothing other than the fact that Yekaterinburg was in Siberia and that the czar and his family had been murdered there during the Revolution. It’s not a pleasant association. Since then, I’ve just briefly Googled the place, and it seems that Yekaterinburg is a large city, the third largest in Russia in fact. It’s odd to think that I selected this Siberian city over similar opportunities in Switzerland, Holland, Finland, and England, where the population at large will be much more likely to speak English. After all, who willingly puts himself on a place for 24 hours? And what is there to visit in Yekaterinburg outside of the city itself?

Alexis Tsarevich

But when else would I ever in my life have the opportunity to visit the heart of Russia? I’m struck dumb with gratitude to my college for sponsoring the journey and looking forward to tracking everything in this blog. But never fear dear reader, if it turns out that they can’t find a match in Russia, I’ll seek out Russian history in one of the other sponsoring countries. In Switzerland, I’ll look for the homes and hotels of Lenin, Solzhenitsyn, Nabokov, and other Russian exiles. I read Conrad’s Under Western Eyes. If in Finland, I’ll journey across the gulf to visit St. Petersburg itself. In London, I’ll spend time in the London Museum, exactly where Marx used to sit, or seek out the place where the Russian social-democrats made mischief. In Holland, I’ll have to settle for looking back a couple of centuries to Peter the Great’s famous visit to learn about the shipbuilding trade.

Moscow Art Theatre

Javor Gardev’s Caligula production performed at NET festival

It's taken me a very long time to get through Constantine Stanislavsky's verbose autobiography, My Life in Art. Although the book needed an editor, you can't read it without getting a very good idea about why Stanislavsky was so instrumental in placing Russia at the forefront of modern theatre. Stanislavsky emerges from these pages as a relentless critic of everything, even his own performances.

The book opens with a fairly lengthy description of Stanislavsky's childhood milieu within Moscow's haute bourgeoisie. The description of the author's family and friends helps to explain how pre-revolutionary Russia created so much of Europe's most brilliant and innovative art. It took incredible amounts of wealth to allow a man like Stanislavsky to forget all worldly cares and devote himself entirely to acting, directing, and producing. At one point, a depressed Stanislavsky wonders--but only rhetorically--whether a potential aesthetic failure might mean that he had nothing better to do than go back to the family business.

The intensity of the Stanislavsky's aesthetic journey also explains the Socialist Revolution that would engulf the country in 1914. How is that such an extravagant bourgeois artistic culture could live side by side with so much misery in the Russian proletariat and peasantry? Surely this state of affairs was a highly unstable one. Stanislavsky's book details his own evolution as an actor and dictatorial director. As he was in art, his journey is both heroic and comic. At one point, we see him asking someone in Italy to strip down in a restaurant so that Stanislavsky can have his closes in order to more closely approximate the gentleman's Moorish custom. At another, Stanislavsky leads his whole troupe to visit the area of the city that was populated by tramps in preparation for Gorky's play about the poor, "The Lower Depths."(Wasn't there a Simpson episode when a Stanislavsky-influenced James Wood gets himself incarcerated in order to research a part he would like to play?)

Medvedev visits Taganrog

Whatever else it is, My Life in Art is elegant, honest, and urbane--so urbane in fact that Stanislavsky provides his readers with none of the US Weekly scandal modern movie goers prize so highly. Moreover, the book is filled with wonderful encounters with the royalty of Russian modernism, most especially Chaliapin, Meierhold,Duncan, Nemirovich-Danchenko, Bernhardt, Ostrovsky, Gorky, and Chekhov.

But the book also makes one appreciate that Russian modernism was deeply rooted in older Russian as well as European literary traditions. The influences (and sometimes the near acquaintances) of Tolstoy, Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, and Gogol are omnipresent. The influences of Shakespeare, Racine, and Moliere aren't neglibile either. And yet somehow the book moves inexorably from Shakespeare to the Stanislavsky system of acting, My System, as he calls it. I think immediately of the acting coach in the movie Adaptation whose hustle is so transcendent it becomes a kind of high art in its own right.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Dark Lord of Mordor

Hiss Leaves Court

Andrew Meier's The Lost Spy: An American in Stalin's Secret Service reminds us that the Soviet Union's battle with its capitalist enemies had important clandestine dimensions. The story of Cy Oggins, an American spy entangled (along with his wife) in the clash of ideologies, illuminates a great deal about interwar espionage, radical politics in America, and the ties that bound American and Soviet strands of communism together.

Yevno Azef

Oggins' story begins right before the First World War. At that time, many American workers as well as Ivy League intellectuals, immigrants, and pacifists were irresistibly drawn to radical politics. Cy Oggins' journey to the extreme left of American life wasn't all that unusual. Soviet Russia filled many of his countrymen with rapture. Wasn't it extraordinary that a regime had chosen land and peace over war and colonialism, chosen a red flag, the symbol of the workers' struggle, or selected a revolutionary national anthem, the Internationale? As Maier points out, many Americans were so inspired that they actually supported a new form of Russian tourism for those who wished to see what the future looked like. Or, to put matters the way Meier does, this was an epoch in which the theories behind great 19th century economic treatises were "spilling out onto the streets."

Spycatcher Smith

Oggins had plenty of reasons to be inspired by Russia, and plenty of other reasons to be repulsed by Russia's capitalist opponents. In addition to the general complaints about bourgeois exploitation of American workers (and indeed Cuban and Philippine ones), the Left had reason to complain about the way America's ruling class abused its power in undemocratic, illegal actions against worker-supported parties and movements. This was the age of the Wobblies, Emma Goldman and anarchists, Maurice Hindus, war resisters, Beard and Dewey, etc. And overseas, this was also the age of the Comintern, when the Soviet Union was, at least theoretically, only the nexus of an international strategy to liberate working people everywhere. Indeed, Meier reminds us that even in Russia ordinary Communists waited from one day to the next for the German Revolution that Marx had promised.

Donald MacLean

And all this Left-wing excitement existed even before the Great Depression, when capitalism seemed be collapsing even from the perspective of its greatest proponents in Washington and on Wall Street.

Auden And Blunt

The Lost Spy does a wonderful job of showing readers why communism was so exciting. It also explains how international spy networks functioned, and how valuable so-called "traitors" could be to Moscow, euphemistically called The Center by its various agents abroad. Oggins ended up tracking White Russians and Trotskyites in France, and Japanese militarism in Shanghai and the Far East puppet state of Manchukuo. The book also tracks the hazards of working for Stalin. Many of the Oggins' friends were executed in Stalin's Great Purges. Most others were at least forced to confront some bitter truths about the Great Leader, as Stalin was sometimes known, including the fact that he eventually chose to ally himself with Nazi Germany. Oggins himself ended up in Lubyanka, one of the most infamous prisons in Russia, before being sent to a concentration camp in the distant north, where he inevitably died.

Accused Spy Robert Phillip Hanssen

Ultimately, The Lost Spy elucidates the strange interplay between the ordinary and extraordinary in the secret life of spies. One minute the book is about a traveling man's sad inability to spend time with his seven year son; the next minute the book is about how a single spy could be of value to the Generalissimo as he sought to come to grips with Trotsky's Fourth Internationale or indeed the Empire of Japan. But as interesting as Meier makes his spies seem, Stalin is even more interesting. In this book, Stalin is Souron from the Lord of the Rings, searching out resisters across the world with a roving eye, no matter how small or seemingly innocuous. In this world, Trotsky's apparently futile resistance, takes on new significance. Even as his son and closest supporters fall to the rising tide of evil, Trotsky's hobbit-like opposition continued to occupy the thoughts of the Dark Lord of Mordor right up until an ice pick put an end to him.

Postscript: Cy Oggins was survived by his wife by 50 years. Ms. Oggins died at the age of 97, a fervent believer in the Communist ideal until the end. Cy died at the hands of Russian Mengelee, a mad Soviet scientist who performed medical experiments on gulag prisoners for Beria and his henchmen. Cy was killed by means of an insidious poison which paralyzed him even as he remained conscious. In the end, the author concluded that Cy was imprisoned because his spymaster had attempted to flee from the Soviet underground. Whenever a spy attempted to defect, it was a routine matter to "roll up" anybody connected to him. In these circumstances, Cy couldn't be released. It wasn't that he would betray the secrets of the gulag. Many in the West already knew about then. It was that he had the ability to betray the entire Soviet system of espionage. Oggins' case came up again the Yeltsin era, with the historian Volkogonov wrongly insisting that Oggins was an innocent man, unconnected with any underground activity for either side, who had been killed in cold blood by the criminal Soviet regime.

Becoming Human

Before I had a child I sometimes attended Ethical Humanism Society meetings. I exaggerate only a little when I say that my wife and I seemed to be the only couple in attendance under the age of 75, and certainly the only multi-racial couple. Ethical Humanist Society meetings felt like Unitarian church services stripped of all of the unnecessary ceremony and amateur choral music. There was a lecture, usually on politics or ethics, followed by audience questions, a five-minute musical interlude, and announcements, and people were free to go.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Although I loved it there, people weren't friendly. Far from it: elderly couples routinely shushed us, routinely shushed their neighbors, and routinely shushed one another. They cared so much about the topics under discussion, they had no time for common courtesies. On one occasion, an ancient lady heckled her husband as he rose to question the speaker. "Saul, shut up. Nobody wants to hear you ask the same question about Israel over and over again." Undeterred, Saul asked his question (which, admittedly, bore no relationship to the topic at hand), sat down, and proceeded to hiss this simple statement to his wife of perhaps 50 years: "I hate you."

I felt at home there. Why? Because notwithstanding the median age of congregants, the Ethical Humanist Society is one of the only places in American where people value politics. Of course, most members of the Ethical Humanist Society were Democrats, Socialists, or Green Party members, but they were political in a sense that trascended party affiliation. They believed with Aristotle that people are fundamentally political creatures. They were alive only insofar as they made conscious and collaborative efforts to choose a better world for themselves and their proginy.

Head Of Aristotle

I recall a book by Margaret Meade entitled "Four Ways of Being Human." This title is telling: it reminds us that people can learn what it means to be a human being in very different ways. Culture is everything. When I was young, I learned that personhood was predicated on politics and little else. You could certainly talk about economics, religion, anthropology, history, and even art, but only insofar as these topics helped to shape your politics. It wasn't that politics was more important than religion, but rather that religion was itself a political undertaking. If you were religious, that was fine, but it was up to you to explain how your faith in God was going to help make this world a better place. Perhaps this was a shallow, one-dimensional way of looking at life. Even so, this was how I was raised.

Margaret Mead

Middle aged now, I've stopped being political. Unlike my mother or her father, I don't lobby, campaign, argue with friends, write letters to the editor, participate in board members, launch nonprofit organizations, etc. However, I've never stopped believing in politics. My atavistic, 19th century view of politics is at least helpful for understanding Bolshevik Russia. Most modern Americans now subconsciously believe that one becomes human--as Margaret Meade would say--only after they have mastered the complexities of consumerism. But in 1917, this wasn't the case. People were apt to sacrifice almost everything else in order to create a new and better political life.

Friday, March 12, 2010

The Physics of Shostakovich

Dmitri Shostakovich monument unveiled in St Petersburg

Two weeks ago I decided that my commitment to Russian culture had to extend to Russian composers whose work was being performed at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra--C.S.O. for short. If I didn’t go to see the upcoming performance of Rachmaninoff and Shostakovitch, who would? (I didn’t realize that real Russians had already purchased tickets directly in front of us). No matter than I knew nothing at all about orchestral music, had little appreciation for what is commonly if mistakenly called “classical” music, and dropped out of piano after a single year, my fingers never reaching beyond ten, or perhaps twelve, ivory keys, before my teacher, who I still recall (30 years later) received a paltry five dollars an hour, suffered a nervous breakdown—a term that mean very little to me at the time but, sadly, means more and more to me as I move ever deeper into middle age—and left off teaching altogether.

Dmitri Shostakovich

No matter, I bought the tickets and even attended a pre-performance lecture by a noted musicologist. The historical draw for me, is that Shostakovich had composed this work in memory of Russia’s first modern revolution, that of 1905. According to the program, 1905 was the unifying revolution, the one almost all shades of Russian educated public opinion accepted, whether liberal, socialist, or merely constitutional. The musicologist told us that Shostakovich was Stalin’s composer, as our co-author, Nick, has previously reminded us by posting on a book that explores this complicated relationship in some depth.

Alicia Markova

In fact, Stalin was a great lover of music and also of Shostakovich for the most part. Shostakovich the composer possessed many of the hallmarks of Socialist Realism, and this generally but not always pleased Stalin. These elements of Socialist Realism, and Stalin’s patronage in general, have had an ambiguous impact on the composer’s legacy in Russia and elsewhere. After Stalin’s death, liberal Russians distained Stalin’s aesthetic judgments, and in any even rightly perceived that Shostakovich had missed out on a few of the most important elements of musical modernism.


Even so, the lecturer told us that “1905” was an excellent piece of music, and one that effectively incorporated many of the Russian songs of rebellion and revolution that were the patrimony of most Russians at the time. He also speculated that the “1905” might have been an oblique critique of Khrushchev’s decision in 1956 to brutally crush a popular revolt against Soviet hegemony in Hungary. The evening also included Rachmaninoff, and the central role of virtuoso piano parts seemed to make this easier to love than Shostakovich.

Yet one couldn’t listen to the Romantic stuff without picturing Liberace in a white, diamond studded outfit on stage. And thus, as I imagine my more musically literature readers can stand more of my uneducated ramblings about music, I shall quit this post. And the reader need not fear that I will decided to analyze the accomplishments of Soviet physicists anytime soon, though I reserve the right to do so.

Moscow Times

Great Kremlin Palace

If Soviet Roulette has a competitor, it’s surely the Moscow Times. Up until this point, Soviet Roulette has responded to its opponent with a dignified silence. More than that, this blog has remained blissfully unaware of the Moscow Times’ audience, subject matter, and editorial policy. In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that we’ve never read a single issue until today. We knew the small paper had a website,, and was established in 1992, but little else. Even so, in this era of niche marketing, we can remain silent no longer about a rival entity that has recently become the first Russian newspaper to become available on Kindle.

The Bolshoi Ballet: Don Quixote - Photocall

The issue we’ve look at appeared on 2 February 2010. It focused on business news, and was apparently designed to appeal to North Americans and Europeans were in Russia to do business. Since Russian business is almost synonymous with oil, the paper’s journalists and editorialists wrote about Gazprom, which has a monopoly or gas exports to the tune of about $16 billion a business quarter, rising oil price, and a new oil partnership with Venezuela.

First trainload with East Siberian oil arrives at Kozmino port on Pacific coast

Aside from oil, the paper looked at nuclear talks with the United States, tensions with Georgia over satellites and breakaway S. Ossetia, the phenomenal success of MacDonald’s in Russia, the 8 percent GDP contraction, Ukrainian elections, NATO in Afghanistan, efforts to avoid layoffs in the domestic car industry, allegations of police corruption, the kidnapping of the son of an important businessman, the allegedly flawed logic behind attempts to revive the cult of Yeltsin and liberal economist, Gaidar, and the battle between Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov and the neighborhood of Rechnik, which stands to be leveled in a redevelopment scheme.

Most interestingly, Moscow Times hosts a number of different advertisements for Moscow expatriate communities. If you’re stuck in Moscow for business, you can choose between groups for newcomers, alumni, Democrats Abroad, entrepreneurs, speed daters, Nigerians, people are practicing their Russian language skills, etc. The real estate ads are interesting too, in that you have the opportunity select Stalin-era apartments or even “pre-revolutionary ones” according to either your politics or aesthetic predilections, whichever matters most to you. Moscow Times also helps expatriates or perhaps tourists to find the best in Russian high culture via Dostoevsky, and Ostrovsky performance and events at the Bolshoi Theatre.

With grudging respect, Soviet Roulette must conclude this post with the grudging acknowledgement of the usefulness of a column on the “five books to read on Soviet and Russian film.” In Oscar-season parlance, the nominees are: “Kino: A History of the Russian and Soviet Film,” “Sergei Eisenstein: A Biography” by Oksana Bulkakowa, “Early Cinema in Russia and its Cultural Reception,” “Ivan the Terrible” by Yuri Tsivian, and “Tarkovsky: Cinema as Power.”

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Breaking News


If I had a readership, it might be interested to know that Soviet Roulette (why not refer to a corporate entity now that I have got official business cards?) is "in talks" with a fellow Russophile to start a Lake County Russian literature reading group.

I realize that publicizing these discussions before they are finalized is tres gauche. (I recall Joseph Heller's line, that a character in Something Happened was "too gauche to know what gauche meant.) And I think specifically of a friend's blog that tracks her own dating adventures in real time (It's hard enough to plan a romantic date without subjecting that date to the scrutiny of a thousand blog readers, isn't it?). Even so, this blog hasn't broken a single piece of news to date, so it's time to start.

At first, we discussed a general Russian literature reading group, but that seemed too open-ended. This led us to agree upon Tolstoy as the logical unifying theme for this group. We've all read War and Peace and Anna Karenina, I'm sure. But don't a lot of us overlook Tolstoy's shorter work? And isn't Tolstoy the perfect choice for a reading group? He dominated the 19th century, but also lived well into the twentieth century, on the cusp of the Revolution.

And Tolstoy is for everybody, as the bumper sticker, or bell hooks, might say. He's written on everyone and everything. And if the reading group decides to branch out to other great authors, Tolstoy has had a great deal of personal contact with almost every other major Russian author of the 19th and early 20th century, including Chekhov, Gorky, and Turgenev. (In fact, I've just come across an interesting passage in Stanislavsky's biography where Tolstoy invites Stanislavsky over for assistance on one one of his plays but then demurely allows his wife to berate the famous actor and director for his presumption.) He also seems to be Plato to Dostoevsky's Aristotle, so it wouldn't be wrong for the group to move its way over to the Gambler or other short Dostoevsky works, would it?

I like Tolstoy for this because he's written so much nonfiction too, so the group could conceivably spend some time on the author's stance on morality, religion, cultural criticism, art, vegetarianism, peace, nonviolence, opposition to the death penalty, and politics. Plus, there's the voluminous Tolstoy memoirs and work by rival family members, Tolstoy cult followers, etc.

At any rate, we plan to have a syllabus so perhaps blog followers will keep up with the readings and respond to blog discussions on the readings in question.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

My (Own) Invented Country

Portrait Of Isabel Allende

Forgive me for posting a second time on the magazine, Russian Life, but I’m still under its spell. Reading Russian Life, I’m reminded of the scholarship that emerged from Benedict Anderson’s anthropological book, Invented Traditions. That book and its imitators reminded us all that national traditions are constructed rather than timeless objects. (See also Isabel Allende's brilliant book on her own artificial nationality, My Invented Country.)Indeed, the very essence of a country, say Scotland’s affinity for bagpipes or kilts, or the British love of tea, may have been adopted only recently, and adopted from a foreign country to boot. Anderson’s thesis was that nationalism is a modern phenomenon, the result of literary culture and modern technologies such as the printing press. People had to learn through the act of reading that they were supposed to be aligned with many other people in their home nation-state.

The implications of this truism about the artificial nature of national identity are profound and far-reaching. And every issue of Russian Life reminds me of this fact. When you pick up an issue of Russian Life, you see how Russians (and those who write about Russians) are engaged in an active and passionate struggle to create meaning out of the potentially meaningless. What does it mean to be a Russian? Russians are interesting primarily because they have answered this question so badly over the centuries. Is Russia an Eastern country, a Western one or some combination thereof? Is Russia inherently despotic or anti-democratic? How important is Orthodoxy to Russia’s sense of self? With so many foreign influences, would Russia be Russian without Russian poetry? Do Russians have to like chess and figure skating to remain Russian?

The British and French and Americans have done such a good job of camouflaging the artificial nature of their own nationalities that these discourses can be extremely dry. In any event, the March/April 2010 issue of Russian Life tells us a lot about the cracks in a Russian nationhood that is constructed internally, but also in dialogue with external actors (such as Russian Life.)

To their credit, the editors are aware of these cracks and report on them. In this issue, they explore the oddities of the Russian language, and even the way in which Russians take pride in these oddities. Apparently, the Russian fondness for rhyme leads to the following everyday catch phrases, that bare little resemble to their ostensible meanings: “I kindly invite you to a lean-to,” “just a piece as big as a cow’s toe,” “love is a carrot,” “What people you meet in Hollywood,” “a horse in a coat,” “a cat soup,” et cetera and so on.

This month, Russian Life also deals with Russia’s attitude toward NATO (i.e., the West) in Afghanistan, Russian orchestral music, the architectural legacy of the Kremlin, the nationalist assertion that abortion is undermining Russia’s power, Russia’s lost cultural heritage in Riga, the Nobel nomination of Svetlanda Gannushkina (member of the governing board of the International Memorial Society), and so on. One interesting aspect of Russian Life’s approach to the enigma of Russia’s identity (to paraphrase Churchill’s cliche) is that the Russian Life appears to embrace both liberal and conservative approaches to Russia’s efforts to stabilize its sense of self.

On the one hand, the editors seem to mock Putin, on the other hand the editors necessarily acknowledge the fragility of the liberal approach to Russian nationalism. For Russians really suffered a psychic loss by being displaced from a former homeland such as Latvia, and Russians really haven’t quite recovered from their national disgrace at the hands of chess prodigy, Bobby Fischer. It’s fascinating to follow the magazine as it attempts to play both sides of the national identity issue.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Decline and Fall

Olympic News - February 21, 2010

I wonder what they are saying in Russia about the country's performance in the Olympic figure skating competition. Shut out of the women's and pairs competition, they muster only Plushenko's silver and a bronze for Dobnina and Shabalin. Gone is the legendary Russian elegance, the impression that the ice had been annexed by the Bolshoi ballet. Russian figure skating could entice even Cold War kids into a fleeting, forbidden admiration. How could an enemy be so evil if they produced such beautiful people?

Of course they weren't all graceful. Some were defined more by pragmatic bullishness and angry haircuts. Plushenko lost on style, not athleticism. Most startling were those scary outfits of Dobnina and Shabalin, as if Diaghilev were pushing them out there to shock the bourgeoisie. Their bodies were entwined with ropes, as if they were into bondage rather than ballet.

I see on wikipedia that the total medals won by Russia and the Soviet Union combined is the same as the US's haul: 44 medals. With the center of the skating world clearly shifting toward Asia, this marks the end of one of the most attractive products of the socialist machine. It's confusing too that Russians, women especially, are so ascendent in the tennis world, a phenomenon that only began with the fall of the Soviet Union. Why would socialism be good for skating but bad for tennis, while authoritarian capitalism is good for tennis but bad for skating? Or is something changing in Russian culture itself?

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Russian Life

A Russophile wouldn't be a Russophile if he or she were prone to joy. But imagine my surprise when Google robbed me of my privacy in order to deliver me into the hands of the wonderful bimonthly magazine, Russian Life. Yes, it's true, there is a magazine for people like me, who take Russian literature and culture seriously but aren't academic professionals. If this isn't niche marketing I don't know what it is.

Russian Life is incredible. My inaugural issue came with articles on Chekhov, the legacy of Tolstoy's children, the Russian tradition in Berlin, a history of Pushkin's Literary Gazette, and some fleeting nods to contemporary Russian language, news, and culture. With magazines like this, I'm tempted to discontinue the blog and sign off. After Russian Life, what claim can any Russian history and literature buff have to originality?

I do wonder about the audience. Are ethnic Russians reading the magazine? I note from the letters to the editor that the magazine isn't sold on newsstands even in Moscow, but that American Russian teachers are probably using articles in their classrooms. The magazine's archives are available for sale, and more impressively, Russian Life is publishing some out-of-date Russian novels in translation. I'm especially interested in their sister publication devoted to translating contemporary Russian fiction. Or how about a book on 93 Untranslatable Russian Words?

At any rate, I'm hooked. I suppose the magazine's flaws will turn out to be nostalgia and light-weight literary analysis. But I'm interested to know whether Russian Life courts the favor of the current Russian regime (and related advertising dollars) or merely Russophile geeks like me. And do geeks like me tend to favor White or Red versions of the Russian past?